Donal Lenihan on the three areas Ireland need to master in today’s World Cup quarter-final
Ireland’s historic win over New Zealand in Chicago in 2016 and the subsequent victory over the same opposition in Dublin two years later were forged on the training field, well in advance of both successes.
The nature of a World Cup, especially when you reach the knockout phase, is that you have very little time to prepare for the next challenge. Ireland targeted those landmark wins over the All Blacks from a long way out. The players were drip fed information over a period of time with the aim of being primed and ready well in advance of battle.
This is different. After all, Ireland didn’t know who they would be facing today until the final whistle blew in the last match of the 40-game pool phase —- three of which were cancelled due to Typhoon Hagibis — between Japan and Scotland. It was only then that the Irish players took stock of the magnitude of what lay ahead.
The reality of favourites New Zealand standing between Ireland and their pre-tournament goal of reaching the semi final stage for the first time dawned the moment they woke up Monday morning. Thankfully Joe Schmidt has been preparing himself for this moment for much longer.
Unlike this stage in 2011 and 2015, when many within the current squad entered the respective quarter-finals against Wales and Argentina as favourites, circumstances are completely different this time out. I will never forget attending the Welsh press conference two days before that clash, in Wellington in 2011.
I was taken aback with the inescapable belief that oozed through every member of the Welsh management I spoke to that, despite expectations to the contrary with Ireland having beaten Australia in their key pool game in Auckland, their young Welsh charges were primed for a shock win. Warren Gatland had his players fully convinced they could beat Ireland which they did with surprising ease on the day.
That is the attitude Ireland must carry into today’s quarter-final. A clear plan will have been presented to the players from that first team meeting last Monday. Prior to that, Schmidt will have sat down with the senior players’ group and sold them the template for victory. The leaders within the group will have used every spare moment during the week to inculcate that belief in the entire squad, especially those who haven’t been down this road before.
The big advantage this group of players carry into this match is a winning mentality against New Zealand, forged since 2016 with Ireland and on Lions duty in New Zealand in 2017. That places them in a different place to any of their predecessors. Delivering on that will be far more challenging however than in either of those historic wins in 2016 and 2018.
This is the World Cup. This is full on, knockout rugby with no second chance. New Zealand will be at their best but Ireland need to create doubts in their minds from the off. So how do they go about doing that...?
Easier said than done but teams that beat New Zealand don’t just fall over the line, they have to perform at full tilt for the entirety of the match. Meeting South Africa at this stage had the bonus of knowing exactly what was coming. Playing against New Zealand requires a different template, a more rounded one.
Being strong defensively, while an absolute must, won’t be enough in itself to turn them over. You also have to score a minimum two tries to beat them and, ideally, have a 15 point lead entering the final quarter. Andy Farrell had a massive role to play this week given his positive experiences from a coaching perspective in the past. In 12 tests against New Zealand as defence coach for England, Ireland and the Lions, he has won four and drawn one.
He was the one who designed the defensive template that enabled the Lions draw the 2017 series in New Zealand. Had Sonny Bill Williams not been sent off in the second test, the outcome would probably have been different. In this World Cup however, you can’t avoid the prospect of a red card changing the course of the game.
In all of Farrell’s successes, the defensive structure and manic line speed he got a variety of teams to produce proved too hot for New Zealand to handle. The only downside with that is New Zealand learned from that as other sides, especially South Africa, used a similar approach to stifle the All Blacks’ relentless attacking game.
One of the ways New Zealand coach Steve Hansen has dealt with the inevitability of teams looking to strangle their creativity with line speed was the integration of two quality playmakers and superb passers of the ball when switching Beauden Barrett to full back and introducing Richie Mo’unga at No 10.
When New Zealand recycle the ball quickly, those two constantly interchange with a view to exposing the rush defence on the outside with the quality of their passing and the pin-point accuracy of their kick passing to their wingers. To beat them requires more than just defensive solidity. You have to take them on from the outset and you must make their bench have to fight to chase the game rather than extend the margin of victory.
Hansen’s decision to hold back Dane Coles, Sonny Bill Williams, and Scott Barrett to spring from the bench will aid their cause but it means that he has gone with comparative rookies across his three-quarter line in Sevu Reece, George Bridge and Jack Goodhue.
Both wingers look impressive going forward but are an unknown quantity at this level. Both must be exposed to the type of scrutiny they have rarely faced when performing in a dominant Crusaders side in Super Rugby.
The two new wingers will certainly be tested going backwards with Conor Murray and Johnny Sexton likely to pepper them early and often given the rain that’s forecast for Tokyo. The prospect of damp conditions certainly won’t bother Ireland too much.
Just how do you go about doing that? The problem playing against this latest version of the All Blacks is that, given they are not quite as dominant up front as the class of 2015, they are quite used to winning without ever dominating the possession or territory stakes.
Cast your mind back to their riveting 23-13 win over South Africa in their opening pool game four weeks ago for proof of that. The Springboks exploded out of the blocks, dominated all the collisions, retained the ball for multiple phases at a time while living in the New Zealand half of the field.
Yet by the end of the opening 20 minutes, all they had to show for their dominance was a measly 3-0 lead. By the 27th minute, despite living off scraps, New Zealand had countered with two tries out of nothing to lead 3-17. Just when you begin to think you’re getting on top of them, they make you look stupid.
That is why it is so important not to kick the ball away without a serious chance of getting it back. You have to dominate the lineout and deny them possession. When Ireland scored that historic win in Chicago three years ago, the All Blacks were not only without both Brodie Retallick and Sam Whitelock, Hansen erred by shifting a back-rower in Jerome Kaino into the second row.
Ireland, with Devin Toner supreme, dominated out of touch, kept possession and won the game. I’ve had this feeling all along that Toner wouldn’t be missed until the knockout phase of this tournament. With Whitelock and Retallick back in harness, that fear could well come to fruition.
The lineout has gone well here, despite all the concerns after the defeat to England in August but, in truth, Ireland have kept it very simple and concentrated on winning possession at the front. The opposition often concede that ball as it’s not great for the half backs from an attacking perspective. Peter O’Mahony had to be included to win better ball in more advantageous positions.
It’s what Ireland do with that ball that will dictate whether or not we are still in a position to win the game entering the final quarter. Bundee Aki is a loss but the all-Leinster combination of Sexton, Robbie Henshaw and Garry Ringrose have played countless games together and have a great understanding on both sides of the ball.
The lack of recent game time for Henshaw doesn’t help but, in Schmidt’s mind, Henshaw has always delivered on the big occasions for Ireland. There are some question marks hanging over New Zealand. This team was still evolving as recently as the Rugby Championship in July and August.
During that period seasoned campaigners in Ben Smith, Rieko Ioane and Owen Franks found themselves surplus to requirement as Hanson rung the changes. Have their successors been adequately tested? Ireland must go after New Zealand from the outset, choke the life out of them and bring them to places they have rarely been before. Containment is not an option. If ever an 80-minute performance is required, this is it.
Even then, it mightn’t be enough.
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